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Thursday, February 18, 2016

Lies product managers tell themselves (Prickril Edition)

I enjoyed Mark Silver's post on the Spechtechular blog on the lies product managers tell themselves. Let's face it, product management is normally a grind. We shouldn't be too hard on ourselves if we tell ourselves a few white lies to help us "get through the night" from time to time. As some of us learned in "The Big Chill", rationalizations are more important than almost anything. ("When was the last time you went a week without a rationalization?").

Mark's post inspired me to do a bit so soul searching. Here are a few ugly and pernicious lies I can now admit I've told myself over the years:

1. I talk to customers all the time so I obviously understand them.

It's self-evident to most product managers that we should be talking to our customers. But let's face it, operational demands back at the lab and unfortunate constraints such as travel budget often make it difficult to engage with customers as often or as deeply as we'd like. This paucity of interaction with customers can create an exaggerated sense of value from the engagement we do have. That means sometimes we find ourselves actually believing that because we had some interaction with them that we really understand them. A few questions that can help us dispel this illusion:
  • Think of a customer contact you have and list their top three professional pains (not necessarily related directly to your product).
  • List the three biggest customer problems your product solves. This one leaves many an overconfident product manager scrambling for an answer when they're put on the spot.
  • Are you talking to customers that are representative of important market segments or just the usual set of "groupies" (folks who love you and your product are perhaps too careful in giving you the feedback you need to radically improve your product).
2. Writing down a strategy is unnecessary because things around here change so often (and I've got a product roadmap!).

Good leaders will tell you that volatility is no excuse for not planning. Perhaps you need to tweak your planning horizon, but defining a vision and set of measurable, supporting objectives is critical and, moreover, one of your key accountabilities as a product manager! Be careful about falling into the trap that your vision and objectives are obvious to every one. You should also be wary if all your objectives are purely financial. Sustaining business success in the world of software will typically require more than short-term margin. Consider your reputation as a though-leader and your desired impact on the markets you serve. Shouldn't you define related objectives? BTW, your roadmap should be a delivery-centric expression of your strategy; it is not the strategy itself! Structurally, I like to define strategy using OMG's Business Motivation Model. This spec is, for the most part, undiscovered gold.

3. I'm extremely busy so I'm obviously getting a lot done.

Product managers are infamously busy people. I believe there are few (if any) other roles that stretch a person in so many different directions, e.g., functional vs. technical, tactical vs. strategic, inward- vs outward-facing. The shear volume and breadth of work means that we can easily delude ourselves into thinking that all this activity actually represents progress. Here's a simple exercise to help cut through "the fog of activity": Look at your calendar for the week and identify everything you're doing that has clear strategic importance. If you're not doing something strategic every day, consider reevaluating your priorities and asking yourself why your investments in your most important resource, time, are so tactical.

4. Everyone seems happy at the lab, so things must be going well for the product.

It's so easy for us to get lulled into a false sense of security during those sometimes rare periods of calm at the lab. Things are going swimmingly with development, executive leadership is happy with developments (or distracted with bigger priorities) and even the quality manager, who had been disrupting your sleep for months, seems content. It is at these times that successful product managers reflexively, even compulsively, assess what's going on "beyond the firewall" to make sure all this calm and contentedness is well-deserved. You should be asking yourself if you're getting regular, high quality information from the outside world about sales, customer satisfaction and other meaningful KPIs.

5. There are million reasons my product isn't performing like I expect it too, none of which have anything at all to do with my poor design, strategy or execution.
Much like a restaurant owner who can think of a million reasons why diners are scarce on a given evening ("There's an ice dancing special on TV tonight and Mars is in retrograde."), it is easy for us to surmise reasons why our product isn't performing at the level we expect. The hardest to accept is that we are simply not delivering what the market expects. This mismatch may be a product of simply not understanding the problem space sufficiently or failing to design the right solution. We might not have a strategy (see point 2 in this post) that is focusing our efforts on winning based on an explicit set of objectives we define. When your product is under-performing, focus you efforts on discovering why and addressing it, not concocting elaborate excuses and staying the same path. 

Lies Worthy of Honorable Mention

  • My product offers enough functionality to really address my customers' pain.
  • I'm clearly delivering what the market wants, not just what appeals to me.
  • Every roadmap pitch I've ever made to execs. :)
So what do you think? What are the biggest lies you've told yourself over the years?

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Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Lest we forget...

While it's clear that Agile can make you faster, make sure your efforts are guided by the right vision and strategy!

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

From Data to Wisdom

I've been looking for an intuitive way to make these distinctions for a long time. I think I'm on my way. 

Thursday, February 4, 2016

The Role of Women in the Software Industry: A Global Disgrace

When it comes to gender equality, most industries, including (or maybe particularly) the software industry, have a lot of work to do. When we characterize the status quo from a statistical perspective, the current problem is daunting or even depressing:
  • A recent study of 11 high-tech American companies revealed that only 30% of their workforce is women
  • A relatively small percentage (of this already small percentage) of these jobs are technical (16%) or leadership roles (22%)
  • Some data indicates that these numbers are getting worse, not better
  • (for more information, see this great CNET article).
Anecdotally, most of us need do little more than look around the average conference room during a meeting to see an appalling representation of the gender gap. As a software product management trainer, my experience is that women only 15% of my students are women (something I'm committed to changing going forward).

In this post, I'll share my perspective on this problem and suggest a way that organizations can frame the problem as an initial step in addressing this unfortunate situation. I'm not an expert on gender equality but am passionate about the problem and hope my (possibly naïve) observations with generate much needed discussion.

Are men and women really different?
Although there is evidence that men and women have biological differences and are subject to the significant influence of cultur, I make the assumption in this post that any gender-relate differences, whether they are real or perceived, are essentially irrelevant to the discussion of gender equality in the workplace, i.e., I assert that men and women are equally capable of contributing positively to an organization's success at all levels of the organization. If you don't share this perspective, it is unlikely that the rest of this post will be persuasive or even meaningful.

What is the cost of gender inequality?
The value proposition of improving gender equality can be hard to determine in a scientific or objective manner, but a reasonable entry point to this discussion from my perspective is based on what I'll call "unrealized potential". The assertion that men and women are equally capable begs a critical question: "Can any organization afford to have an important voice underrepresented in realizing its potential?" I feel strongly that a key factor in determining the success of any enterprise is realizing the full potential of all its members, regardless of gender.

Addressing Gender Inequality
Although acknowledging that gender inequality exists and has an adverse impact on software organizations is an important first step, addressing this issue remains a difficult endeavor, replete with issues common to addressing other types of inequality, including age and race inequality. Given the best information I've been able to find, I simply acknowledge that gender equality is a real issue that has a significant, adverse impact business success and thus, in practice, on our society as a whole. As a corollary, I would say that if gender inequality is impacting society as a whole, we are all stakeholders in its resolution regardless of our gender {or any other factor}). 

One way to consider how the gender gap could be addressed relates to the level in the organizational hierarchy at which change is planned and implemented. In this post, I'll address the genesis of this change from two perspectives: bottom-up and top down.

Addressing Gender Inequality Bottom-up
Personal Commitment
I think the most important bottom-up driver for gender equality is awareness of the problem and a personal commitment from each of us to help eradicate it. This step takes some research, perhaps some training or professional guidance and, most important, some introspection. We are all stakeholders in this problem and must each play a part in improving the situation.

Women themselves can also play a part by taking advantage of opportunities to increase the leadership skills and strategic perspective. I believe that the role of product management can play an important role in preparing women for leadership roles given the breadth of knowledge required and the inherently strategic nature of this role.

I believe that product management is in a special position to address gender inequality as it provides an opportunity to developing leadership skills in women without immediately impacting an organization's explicit leadership roles. At the bottom of the post, I list how we product managers can help improve the situation.

Addressing Gender Inequality Top-down
Addressing gender inequality top-down means acknowledging that leadership's interpretation of the problem and its willingness to address it are absolutely critical. In short, organizational leadership must approach gender inequality with an open mind and accept multiple inconvenient truths.

Gathering the Data
A relatively straightforward step in addressing gender inequality lies in understanding via data the magnitude of the problem. Organizational leadership must define a reasonably simple model for measuring the participation of women in the organization. Gathering statistics on the number of women in the workforce and their representation in leadership roles is essential. The latter requires a fair and comprehensive definition of what constitutes leadership, whether measured by reporting relationships, accountability for business success such as influence on revenue. More nebulous measures such as overall influence on organizational decision-making might also be enlightening. If the data demonstrates that gender inequality exists, a likely outcome given generalized statistics, I believe there is a leadership imperative to address it.

Creating the right culture
Organizational leaders, in my opinion, have an obligation to create an organizational culture that acknowledges gender inequality as a problem and demonstrates a willingness to address it. Some organizations like Google are arranging workshops to increase awareness.

Proactive measures
In an attempt to address gender inequality, many organizations have embarked on programs to address it by setting gender-related goals. From the perspective of fairness, related policies can be controversial. While a comprehensive treatment of the desirability or efficacy of such programs is beyond the scope of this post, given the magnitude of the problem and its consequences, I applaud organizations that undertake such efforts. Organizational leadership is responsible for carefully considering such policies and, as appropriate, implementing them in a fair and transparent manner.

What can we as product managers do?
The good news is, we as product managers can help our industry address this problem. A few thoughts off the top of my head:
  • As I said before, make a personal commitment to addressing the problem (or at least not contributing to it)
  • Consider mentoring a women interested in product management as a career path. I'm doing it and have found it rewarding.
  • If you're in software organization leadership, put gender equality on the agenda and make it a priority
  • If you interact with girls that are still school age (your daughters maybe), encourage them to pursue math and science or other technical fields
  • If you're a product management trainer (I realize this is a small community), consider special programs that help address the (likely) gender gap in your courses. I'm in the process of doing this and couldn't be more excited about it!
I must admit writing this post made me unusually self-conscious. As I said before, I'm not an expert on the topic and have undoubtedly left out important aspects of the issue and its treatment. If this post encourages discussion on the topic, I'll consider it a great success.

Are you ready to address gender inequality in your organization? Are you already addressing it? Please share your experiences.